Esper order aims to expand diversity, skirts major decisions

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during a briefing on counternarcotics operations at U.S. Southern Command, Friday, July 10, 2020, in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Evan Vucci, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Mark Esper took steps Wednesday to expand diversity within the military and reduce prejudice, but he skirted several major decisions, including whether to ban the Confederate flag at defense installations.

In a four-page memo, Esper ordered all military services to stop providing service members' photos for promotion boards, directed a review of hairstyle and grooming policies, and called for improved training and data collection on diversity. Absent from the memo was any mention of the issues that have roiled the nation — efforts to ban the Confederate flag and a growing movement to remove Confederate statutes and rename military bases honoring Confederate leaders.

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Confederate flags, monuments and military base names have become a national flashpoint in the weeks since the death of George Floyd. Protesters decrying racism have targeted Confederate monuments in multiple cities. Some state officials are considering taking them down, but they face vehement opposition in some areas.

A draft policy circulated by Pentagon leaders more than a week ago would have banned the display of the Confederate flag in Defense Department workplaces or public areas by service members and civilian personnel. It said a ban would preserve “the morale of our personnel, good order and discipline within the military ranks and unit cohesion.” That policy was never finalized or signed, and instead officials say it is now being revised.

President Donald Trump has flatly rejected any notion of changing base names, and has defended the flying of the Confederate flag, saying it’s a freedom of speech issue. Esper spent last Friday with Trump in Florida, but it’s unclear if they talked about the flag ban.

The Marine Corps and U.S. commands in Korea and Japan have already banned display of the Confederate flag, saying it can inflame division and weaken unit cohesion. The Navy, Air Force and Army were all ready to do the same, but their progress was halted when Esper made it known he wanted to develop one consistent policy.

Some of the orders in Esper’s memo released Wednesday are already in effect by the military services, but his directive is a move to also make those policies more consistent.

For example, he ordered the military to no longer include photos of service members when they are being considered by a promotion board. This would mark a change for the Navy and Marine Corps. But, the Air Force removed photos from promotion boards more than a decade ago, and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy announced last month that beginning in August his service would no longer include them.

The Navy eliminated the photos in 2016, then added them back in 2018 after members of promotion boards complained. They said the photos aided their ability to assess a service member's “ability to perform the duties of the next higher grade,” according to the 2018 memo. The Marines have always included photos.

Army officials last month said they were eliminating the photos because a study showed they could make a difference in some promotion boards. The study suggested that when the photo is not included, it took board members less time to vote, their scores were more closely aligned and “the outcomes for minorities and women improved.”

Esper's memo, however, left other promotion board issues unresolved and subject to further review, including whether the services should redact the box on the form that identifies a person’s race or whether a person’s name — which in some cases could indicate race or gender — should also be removed.

He also ordered a review of hairstyle and grooming policies, which all the military services have done multiple times in recent years. They have all loosened restrictions, particularly on women's hair, to allow for more ethnic hairstyles, including various braids and larger buns.

Esper also has asked that every time he receives a promotion list from one of the services, it includes a review that shows the racial make-up of the pool of candidates and also of the group getting promoted.

The services have historically compiled that data, and it is always provided to the secretary with promotion results for higher ranks — one star and above. For years, it was also provided for lower ranks, but in 2009, the department switched to an annual report, and stopped providing it to the defense chief for each promotion list.

A senior defense official said giving the secretary the review for every list is meant to identify any potential problems or lack of diversity and wasn't expected to affect the promotion results. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a personnel issue.

Esper also met Wednesday with his newly formed Board on Diversity and Inclusion, which is expected to identify potential policy changes over the coming months. It will deliver a final report in December, and then be replaced by a permanent commission.

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